In Afghanistan, peace starts in democratic unity

The peaceful mediation used by Afghans to end a dispute over a presidential election helps set a norm that the Taliban cannot defeat.

An Afghan man removes broken glass after a blast in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, May 18.

In a pivotal step toward peace in Afghanistan’s long war, the country’s two leading politicians signed an agreement Sunday that ends a feud over who won a flawed election eight months ago. President Ashraf Ghani will retain his office while election rival Abdullah Abdullah will head up talks with the Taliban and appoint half of the new government’s cabinet.

The deal to share governing responsibilities is itself a tribute to how many Afghans view power differently than the Taliban militants trying to impose their will through guns. It was mediated over months by a number of respected Afghan leaders who persuaded both men to put the country’s interests ahead of their personal ambitions, especially during the struggle against the coronavirus.

Peaceful consensus-making is now a norm in Afghanistan’s maturing democracy. “The knot that can be opened with hands should not be opened by teeth,” wrote one group of female political figures about their efforts to mediate the new power-sharing agreement. That sentiment is certainly in need given the continuing brutality of the war, such as the recent terrorist attack on a maternity ward in Kabul.

The Afghan negotiators were not alone. In March, the Trump administration threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid unless the two presidential contenders struck a deal. But the United States largely left it to the Afghan mediators in suggesting the details of an agreement.

With a deal in place, Afghanistan’s government may soon be ready for talks with the Taliban – not only because of its ability to speak with one voice but also with a legitimacy borne of this latest demonstration of democracy. The intra-Afghan peace talks were proposed in February under an agreement made between the U.S. and the Taliban but were delayed because of the political feud.

Ending more than 18 years of war with the Taliban will not be easy, especially if the U.S. decides to withdraw its troops without a final peace deal. But the more that the Taliban are shown the resolve of the Afghan people in improving their elected government, the more the group will need to compromise at the negotiating table. Even the two presidential contenders had to learn that lesson.

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